by David Elfin

Tony Bennett’s basketball teams, like those of his father, Dick, are known for their stifling defense. Indeed, Virginia came to College Park yesterday allowing just 51.5 points, the second-fewest in the nation.

So Bennett’s shooting ability – a talent that enabled him to play three seasons in the NBA and made him the most accurate three-point shooter (49.7 percent) in NCAA history – often gets forgotten.

But on a day when the Cavaliers allowed a season-high 69 points as well as 59 percent shooting in the second half, they prevailed because their long-range game was as good as their coach’s once was.

Virginia made a dazzling 11 of 19 shots from beyond the arc (57.9 percent) in a convincing 80-69 victory over host Maryland that raised the unsung visitors to 17-6 overall and 7-3 in the ACC.

“We moved the ball well,” said Bennett, whose team was coming off a 78-41 romp over Clemson, its biggest margin in an ACC game in nearly 32 years after losing a late lead and falling 66-60 at Georgia Tech. “We had different guys shooting it well. We were very efficient. … [Against] Georgia Tech, we played good ball for about 32 minutes, [but] we labored a little bit down the stretch. [That] showed us you can’t take your foot off the gas.”

Yesterday, Virginia accelerated just before halftime, breaking a 28-28 tie with a 7-1 run before opening the second half with a 12-5 spurt. Maryland, which dropped to 17-7 overall, 5-6 in the ACC, was never closer than seven points the rest of the game.

Junior guard Joe Harris (7-for-8 overall, 3-for-4 on three-pointers) and sophomore guard Paul Jesperson (4-for-6, 4-for-4) were nearly perfect from the field as the Cavs outworked and outsmarted the bigger and faster Terps.

“It was target practice out there,” said senior point guard Jontel Evans, who played just 60 minutes during Virginia’s 13 non-conference games because of a foot injury. “[Harris and Jesperson] couldn’t miss. If you add that shooting and our defense together we’re a tough team to beat. This is very encouraging. Our confidence is sky-high.”

While surprising Miami is unbeaten in the ACC and cruising towards its first conference regular season title and Duke is just about its usual elite self, Virginia’s victory at Comcast Center put the young Cavaliers – only one senior and two juniors were among the nine players who saw action – solidly in third place with six conference games remaining.

“We really wanted to get a road win bad,” said Harris, whose team was 1-3 away from Charlottesville since November. “For us to pick up a road win against a quality Maryland team is huge for us. We’re a young team, but everybody plays together. We’re very unselfish. When we shoot well and defend the way we [usually] do, we have a chance to beat most teams.”

That wasn’t the case when Bennett arrived in Charlottesville in 2009. Virginia’s previous season had been its worst since the mid-1960s. The Cavs went 15-16, 5-11 in his debut and 16-15, 7-9 the next year before rising to 22-10, 9-7 last season while reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

Despite its youth and lack of height – only three regulars are as tall as 6-foot-8 – this year’s team is playing even better. Tuesday’s date with last-place Virginia Tech and upcoming rematches with Georgia Tech, Boston College and Maryland should ensure 20 victories and a winning record in the ACC no matter what happens at North Carolina, Miami and Florida State and at home against Duke.

Junior forward Akil Mitchell, Virginia’s only true big man at 6-8 with 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey out indefinitely with mononucleosis, said the Cavs can be “sneaky dangerous” come March.

However, freshman guard turned forward Justin Anderson, who reneged on a commitment to Maryland after then-Terps coach Gary Williams retired in the spring of 2011, isn’t thinking that far ahead.

“We’re definitely jelling,” said Anderson, who delighted in watching the fans who had screamed at him every time he touched the ball leave before the buzzer sounded. “Every time we step on the hardwood, we’re getting better collectively. We’re all starting to trust each other. It’s all starting to flow. We’re not very boastful about our program. We want to be a gritty team. We want to be a tough team. We just want to continue to be humble. That’s what Coach Bennett drills into us. We’ve got [Virginia] Tech Tuesday. If we take care of business one game at a time, everything else will fall into place.”

A month until the ACC Tournament begins, it’s all falling into place for Bennett, Anderson and Virginia.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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